FROM THE PUBLIC EDITOR'S DESK: Scribes’ dilemma: to be or not to be objective

Monday July 25 2016

Ndimara Tegambwage is Public Editor with

Ndimara Tegambwage is Public Editor with Mwananchi Communications Limited. 

Alfred Mukwenzi has an assignment for you. Read him: “You talk about ethics. But can you tell me exactly what it means to be ‘objective’ in journalism?”

“I know a human being is subjective by nature,” he writes and asks, “How can one be objective on matters of human interest where she/he is locked as part of the human race and possibly part of the source of the problem at issue?”

This question is directed to the Public Editor. Fine.  But to be precise, it is directed to reporters—the beat boys and girls, investigators, editors, trainers, researches in mass communication and the sciences.

As I throw the question to all those mentioned above and others, I pose two questions that could possibly help in getting an agreeable answer. These are:

Question 1: Do we need to separate ourselves from situations in order to report, record and analyse them objectively?

Question 2: What needs to objective: the journalist or the method? 


Question 3: Can’t facts, figures and evidence, verified beyond doubt, represent objectivity?

Alfred has the questions to keep him busy as the world searches for answers; indeed, explanations, as opposed to searching for definitions, which are quite a bizarre exercise.

I therefore direct him and others to quickly read sections of debates on objectivity; especially, but not limited to, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in the title: The Elements of Journalism where they argue that one of the great confusions in journalism is the concept of objectivity.

The edited excerpt hereunder is part of the teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists—a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers and owners of media outlets under the American Press Institute, based on Bill and Tom’s thoughts on objectivity.

These thoughts may not be the best on what objectivity is. But one thing is clear: They will stimulate you somewhat as we wait for home and foreign-grown thoughts to pour in. Read on…

When the concept (of objectivity) originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary.

The term began to appear as part of journalism after the turn of the 20th century… out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously.

Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

…the idea (was) that if reporters simply dug out facts and ordered them together, truth would reveal itself rather naturally.

It meant, “Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence.”

This …coincided with the invention of what journalists call the inverted pyramid—lining facts up from the most important to the least important, thinking it helps audiences understand things naturally.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, some journalists began to worry about the naïveté of realism. In part, reporters and editors were becoming more aware of the rise of propaganda and the role of press agents…

In 1919, Walter Lippmann (American writer, reporter, and political commentator) and Charles Merz, associate editor for the New York World, wrote an influential and scathing account of how cultural blinders had distorted the New York Times’ coverage of the Russian Revolution.

They wrote, “In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.”

Lippmann and others began to look for ways for the individual journalist “to remain clear and free of his irrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news.”

Journalism, Lippmann declared, was being practiced by “untrained accidental witnesses.” Good intentions, or what some might call “honest efforts” by journalists, were not enough.

The solution, Lippmann further argued, was for journalists to acquire …“a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact.”

He thought the fledgling field of journalist education should be transformed from “trade schools designed to fit men for higher salaries in the existing structure” to a field that makes “its cornerstone the study of evidence and verification (end of excerpt).”

This is not my reply to Alfred. It is only something to engage him momentarily as we wait for readers’ explanations of “objectivity” to flow in for everyone’s advantage.